Matthew’s Christmas Genealogy

Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus departs from the Hebrew norm.

A favorite medieval image of the genealogy of Jesus was the Jesse tree. The image pictured the family tree of Jesus as arising out of the side of Jesse, the father of David.

When a Biblical author introduces an important figure into his narrative, he sometimes starts by giving that person’s genealogy. His illustrious ancestry underscores the figure’s historical significance.

Let me offer two examples. When the author/editor of Genesis introduces Abram (later renamed Abraham) into his story, he begins with Abram’s genealogy (Genesis 11:10-30). The list of Abram’s ancestors stretches back to the patriarch Noah. This ties Abram into the story of God’s redemptive interventions into history.

When the author of the book of Ezra introduces Ezra into his narrative, he also does so by giving Ezra’s distinguished ancestry (Ezra 7:1-6). The genealogy underscores Ezra’s status in the line of priests going back to Aaron, Moses’ brother. It gives Ezra great credibility as an interpreter of Torah.

It should not surprise us then when Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy for Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17). The genealogy highlights Jesus’ royal ancestors stretching back to King David. This supports Jesus’ status as the promised Son of David who will usher in the kingdom of God.

It does not stop with David, but also pushes the recitation of Jesus’ ancestors back to Abraham, thereby firmly establishing Jesus’s status as a genuine Jew. Both identities are important to the story about Jesus that Matthew will recount.

Matthew Places a Surprise in  Jesus’ Genealogy

Matthew, however, gives an unexpected twist to his genealogy. Old Testament genealogies always trace the line of descent from father to son. What counts is the male succession. The names of mothers are omitted.

But Matthew includes four women in his genealogy. And they are four women whose names you would expect a Jew with a proper sense of social propriety to suppress, not highlight.

The first is Tamar. Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Jacob’s son, Judah. She marries Judah’s son, who then dies. Following early custom, Judah’s second son should marry Tamar. But he refuses and subsequently dies, too.

Now legal custom dictates that Tamar should marry Judah’s third son. Judah, however, is fearful of losing a third son to this unlucky woman, so he procrastinates on the marriage. This keeps Tamar in a socially disadvantaged position. In her world it represents an injustice.

To rectify it, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and entices her father-in-law unknowingly into fathering twins. Judah wants to execute Tamar for adultery but Tamar turns the tables and wins vindication. (For Tamar’s story, see Genesis 38.)

The second is Rahab. She is a prostitute in Jericho who hides two Israelite spies who are scouting out the town and its defenses. In return she and her family are spared when the town falls to the Israelite armies. (For Rahab’s story, see Joshua 2.)

The third is Ruth. Ruth is a Moabite, widowed along with her mother-in-law Naomi, an Israelite. They return to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown. There Ruth ultimately wins the attention of Boaz, a local land owner. He marries her and she becomes great-grandmother of David.

As a Moabite, however, she would have been considered an outsider in Israelite society. In her faithfulness to Naomi, however, she sets an amazing example of chesed (steadfast love), the highest virtue of Israelite culture. The Biblical story places her on par with the two wives of Jacob. This is an astounding honor for a foreign woman. (For Ruth’s story, see the Book of Ruth.)

And finally Matthew mentions the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, the woman whom David seduces and commits adultery with. She mothers Solomon, after her first son dies, a divine punishment on David’s sin. (For Bathsheba’s story, see 2 Samuel 11-12.)

Why This Departure from the Norm?

All four women have some scent of irregularity about them. So it is really odd to find Matthew including them in his genealogy. Why would he do so? There may be two reasons.

First this genealogy immediately precedes Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. That account places great emphasis on Mary being a virgin when she conceives Jesus.

Her pregnancy would have been scandalous in her own society and cause for extreme social condemnation. Joseph plans to divorce her until God sets his anxieties at ease. But

The second reason may not be intentional, but reveals something about the spirit of the Jesus movement that arises out of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus himself is constantly welcoming the social and spiritual outsider. He is notorious for welcoming sinners, tax collectors, the sick, lame, and those socially ostracized by unclean illness like lepers.

The early church also breaks the boundaries that defined proper Jewish society. The Christian movement (as recounted in the Book of Acts) welcomes into its membership Samaritans, eunuchs, and supremely Gentiles as fully equal members of the community. And we see in both Acts and the letters of Paul hints that women were playing important roles in the growth of that community.

This spirit of inclusiveness makes the Christian movement suspect to those who feel the boundaries of the spiritual community must be drawn quite rigidly. (It still does.) It makes early Christianity a threatening force in the Mediterranean cultures of its day.

Matthew may be exhibiting something of this inclusive spirit by including the four women he does in his genealogy. When we encounter this feature in the very opening words of Matthew’s gospel, it alerts us that as we read into the Jesus story that Matthew will recount, we need to expect that our social and spiritual preconceptions of what is proper will be challenged over and over again.



The Religious Life: Faithfulness or Betrayal?

Bible text: Joshua 2

Whether one applauds or condemns a character is a Biblical story all depends upon the perspective from which the reader reads the story. A good example is Joshua 2.

In this chapter, the text tells the story of how Joshua, leader of the Israelites, prepares to invade the Promised Land to take possession of it. As part of his preparations, he sends two spies over the Jordan River to scout out the land. They make a stop in the Canaanite city of Jericho.

There they spend the night in the house of a prostitute named Rahab. Whether they took part in her services, we are not told. If they did, this story takes on more of a James Bond flavor than we might expect in a Biblical story.

When the city’s king hears about their presence in his city, he commands Rahab to surrender them. Instead she hides them under newly harvested flax on her house roof.  Later that night she helps them escape through a house window that opens on the city wall.

She asks them to spare her and her family’s lives when the Israelites capture the city. The spies agree.

The text suggests her motivation, when verse 9 quotes Rahab as saying: “I know that the Lord has given you the land.” For this reason, she says, dread has descended upon all the inhabitants of the land.

Rahab looks into the future and decides to cast her lot with the future rather than the past. To the author of the text, that is prudent behavior, indeed possibly even faithful behavior.

Certainly later Biblical tradition saw it that way. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, includes Rahab within its genealogy for Jesus (Matthew 1:5). She is an ancestor of both King David and of Jesus. And the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews includes her in its great celebration of Old Testament saints (Hebrews 11:31). These two authors are looking back and judging Rahab from the perspective of the winning side of the story.

But what happens if you read the story of Rahab from the perspective of the king of Jericho and its inhabitants? Then Rahab appears a traitor. She harbors the spies and helps them escape. She is assisting the enemy. From their perspective Rahab’s behavior is something to damn, not praise.

This shows how a Biblical story can become very ambiguous depending upon the perspective from which you read it.

I like the story of Rahab because it suggests that this is often the way the behavior of religious people is seen in our contemporary world. Behavior which is admired and praised within the religious community may be soundly criticized and condemned by those outside or even by others within the community who do not share the same convictions.

An apt example is the career of Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s actions were deeply motivated by his Christian convictions. And for that reason, many religious people both black and white flocked to his cause. But to those who did not share his convictions he was a menace to civil order and a cause for great alarm, enough so that he could not be allowed to live.

Another apt example is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His decision to join the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler was motivated by deeply religious convictions. But was that decision an act of faithfulness or an act of betrayal to his nation?

In both cases, our judgment depends upon the perspective from which we are coming.

What this also indicates is the conflict that always arises when religious people are serious about living their lives on the basis of their religious convictions, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or something other.

For the Christian the apostle Paul captures the conflict in his comment to the Christians living in Philippi that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Our primary loyalty is to the kingdom of God which is coming, not to the earthly country or culture in which we are currently living.

Our primary citizenship defines the ultimate values and practices by which we live, not the laws and customs and values of the culture into which we are born and raised. Christians may make very good citizens of their country, but that is not how others will always see it.

That’s why a deeply religious life will always be one that has to negotiate conflict. For loyalties will clash and be misunderstood by those who do not share our own religious perspective.